A Knitter’s Weekend: Washington Island
The only way to get to Washington Island at the tip of Door County Wisconsin is by ferry. (Or private plane—ours was not available … wink emoji.) Fiber friend Theresa and I started our visit on a perfect evening, overlooking Green Bay. Not a football in sight.
What’s in a name?
The Ojibwa named the island “Wassekiganeso” that translates to “his breast is shining” because sunlight reflects and glints off its limestone cliffs. When a larger, non-Native American population arrived in the 1830s, they called it Washington Island. Together with the Door Peninsula, Washington Island forms a treacherous strait connecting Green Bay to the rest of Lake Michigan. Early French explorers named it after the many shipwrecks, Porte des Morts, translated colloquially as “Death’s Door,” which pops up frequently in road names, parks, and souvenirs.
Almost immediately after driving onto the island, we stopped at Fair Isle Books and Gifts. There was an excellent selection of yarns, books, and even entertainment for the littles.
The famous Door County cherries were just beginning to ripen on the island, so no picking for us, but the island microclimate that supports cherries—lake waters delay the coming of spring and extend mild temperatures in the fall—is also perfect for orchards and lavender.
The Farm Museum is a sweet spot to visit.
I traded side eyes with a Jacob sheep, watched some chickens, saw more lavender, and laughed at kid goats butting heads.
“Happiness is in your hands and it keeps you young.”
That’s a quote from Walter Schutz who with his wife Sophie Sievers Schutz established Sievers School of Fiber Arts where the workshops are top-notch. The school evolved from one class room in 1979 to two light-filled studios and a dormitory to house workshop participants.
Color gamp studies from the weaving workshop I attended
Sievers Store, the island’s yarn shop, is in a former one-room schoolhouse. Dating to 1890, it still has some original light fixtures. This is not your average resort-town shop. It has a stunning selection of yarns, both commercial and handspun, as well as knitting, spinning and weaving books and accessories. The owner and his son have a niche business making model train tables—if that’s your jam!
There is an impressive lending library of craft and local history books. Fill out an index card with your info and it’s yours for a while. I spotted hard-cover copies of both MDK books!
A Feast and a Ramble
The permanent resident population of Washington Island is around 700, and the island school district is the smallest in the State of Wisconsin. While we were in town, the International Food Festival—a scholarship fund raiser for high school graduates—took place.
We bought our tickets, filled our plates, then sat down to eat and chat. One man at our table, a softly-spoken 63-year old sporting a Harley shirt and biker beard secured with a rubber band, told me his family on the island goes back 136 years, and that he has spent every summer of his life on the island. This was not an uncommon story—ties to the island are strong. I heard “When I lived off-island,” more than once.
Stavekirk, a replica of Norwegian wooden church
Washington Island has one of the oldest Icelandic communities in the United States, among the largest outside Iceland. I didn’t get to see the Icelandic horses, but I did find these:
At Little Lake Nature Preserve, once the site of a Native American settlement, I visited the study cabin of Thorstein Veblen, the economist who coined the term “conspicuous consumption.”
it depends on what your definition of “leisure class” is
The water on the beaches is remarkably clear:
And the rocks are clearly inspiring to aspiring architects:
Because of a Prohibition-era loophole, Nelsen’s Hall, the oldest continually operating tavern in Wisconsin, was granted a license to dispense bitters as a “stomach tonic for medicinal purposes.” Since Angostura Bitters is 90 proof, it’s safe to say that it served as more than just a cure for upset tummies. Taking shots of Angostura Bitters is now a tradition, and the island’s population consumes more bitters than anyone else in the world. I did not join the club.
The range of locally-made ciders, both alcoholic and non, was surprising. Apple-lavender, apple-cherry, pear, and even an apple with guava and hops. Cider is important here. In the fall there is a public pressing party at the Farm Museum that sounds like it would be worth a return visit. The Washington Island Farmer’s Market features amazing treats and produce.
Beautiful and serene, the island has spotty cell service and scarce Wi-Fi, which helped it feel like a place out of time to this city dweller. I know I’ll be back!